Computing at the Speed of Light

06/16/2016

Information on the internet travel quite close to the speed of light, thanks to the growing number of fiber optic networks. But that information has to slam on the brakes when it arrives at your computer.

But maybe not for long.

Computers are limited by their electronic components, and the speed with which the data can be transferred and processed over the wires and metal components. And we are near the limit, according to a ScienceAlert report, where we physically cannot improve on the current system. So what’s next?

A research team in Surrey has been working on creating a glass like material that could use light to integrate different functions in one component, like the super-fast CRAM. “The challenge is to find a single material that can effectively use and control light to carry information around a computer,” said Dr Richard Curry, who has been leading at Surrey’s Advanced Technology Institute (ATI).

Engineers at Stanford may have done just that. They have developed what could be the first of many components that would power photonic computers, meaning computers that carry data via light rather than electricity.

How the Stanford components work:

The team based their research on the understanding of how light’s speed changes when it passes through different substances. In this case, silicon and air. A silicon part, working like a miniature prism, splits and bends waves of light. The study focuses on splitting C-band and O-band lights, since they are present in current fiber optic networks and have the most immediate application. Stanford researchers used an advanced algorithm to design the prism, and using alternating materials they were able to refract the light and direct it where they wanted the light to go. The resulting structure, called an optical link, looks like a lot like barcode.

Stanford's Light Bending Silicon Chip

“Light can carry more data than a wire, and it takes less energy to transmit photons than electrons,” said electrical engineering Professor Jelena Vuckovic, who led the research.

While we may be 10 years away from a light powered computer, researcher are excited by the applications for today’s fiber optic networks, as well as the application in certain computer components. One thing’s for sure, light may no longer be the fastest particle in the universe, but it is light years ahead of electric current.